In the mid-1980s, Char Davies set aside her successful career as a painter to become a founding director of a tiny start-up computer graphics company in Montreal called SoftImage. Its product, which allowed artists to create 3-D computer graphics without a deep knowledge of mathematics and computer programming, was a big hit. Used to create the special effects for such blockbuster films as Terminator 2, Independence Day, and Armageddon, it soon became a must-have tool. SoftImage's staff swelled from 7 to 200 people in just a few years, and Davies, who had worked nonstop, finally took a few weeks off.  

On the sparsely populated Bahamian island of Andros, Davies learned to scuba dive. Over several visits she mastered the technique of deep dives into the Caribbean waters—to the edge of safety, over 200 feet into a 6,000 foot deep abyss.

These dives introduced Davies to a whole new bodily experience of space. Scuba had allowed her to feel suspended in space; she gloried in the enveloping environment of the warm sea. All around her, in every dimension, the water supported her journey. She could move in any direction, free from the tyranny of gravity. She began to consider how she could portray this experience of rapture in an artwork.

Throughout her life as an artist, Davies had wanted to evoke the sensation of enveloping space. It was this desire that propelled her to learn to dive, and it also drove her to master three-dimensional computer graphics as a technique for breaking through the two-dimensional frame of paintings. Beginning with a series of three-dimensional still images, known as the Interior Body series, she took the aesthetics she had already developed as a painter, and using transparency and translucency, created digital imagery that looked startlingly real. One composition, titled The Yearning appears to be a coral ice form captured beneath a quiet sunlit sea, more evocative than any photograph and absolutely alive. Now Davies wanted to go beyond the static image and translate the feel of her scuba experience of envelopings space into a virtual world.

By the middle of the 1990s, computing power had become inexpensive enough that Silicon Graphics could build enormously powerful machines devoted to computer simulations, including their Reality Engine, which began to touch upon that fabled figure of 80 million polygons a second. Their marketing folks imagined that such a product would be used by scientists and engineers, and perhaps even for entertainment. It had the kind of power Davies would need to express her aesthetic, a translucent world that would portray the sense of freedom she felt beneath the sea.

During these years, Davies sought company in the writing of philosophers. The Poetics of Space, written by Gaston Bachelard, was particularly inspirational:

By changing space, by leaving the space of one's usual sensibilities, one enters into communication with a space that is psychically innovating. … For we do not change place, we change our nature.

For Davies, this meant if she could change space, create a new place for her art to be experienced, she could change the nature of those who came to view it. To do this, she would need to immerse the viewer within her work so that the distinctions between art and observer would collapse. No longer would her images hang in a frame, static and isolated. Now people would enter into her art and become part of the world she created.

She knew it was possible, technically, to use virtual reality to achieve such an end, although no one had yet created a virtual artwork of such magnitude. The machines were capable—but could the creator rise to the challenge? How could Davies redefine space to produce a new human nature?

One solution to this, as it happens, was found long ago; you need only walk into a cathedral to understand. In May 1996, I went to Paris for the Fifth International Conference on the World Wide Web. I gave a morning lecture on VRML fundamentals, then struck out to explore the city. In the early evening, I found myself on the Ile de la Cité, a tiny island in the Seine that is the heart of Paris; standing before Notre-Dame de Paris, the world-famous cathedral. The chaotic streets around Notre-Dame are thronged with tourists, merchants, and local residents. As I crossed the threshold into Notre-Dame, a sudden and unexpected sensation enveloped me. The somber quiet of the cathedral space, soaring upward to the heavens, produced a similar sense of peace within me. In a journey of just a few feet, I found myself, my being, in an entirely new space. It was as remarkable as it was unexpected—but this surely was the intent of the artisans, who, nearly a thousand years ago, labored to build this monument to God's glory. Bachelard, as a Frenchman, understood the power of space to transform human nature; he had a defining example at hand.

Instead of a cathedral, the warm, boundless embrace of the sea had transformed Davies. To help her recapture this feeling, she had the ultimate tool for the transformation of space, a Reality Engine capable of extraordinary feats of computer simulation. If she wanted to dissolve the boundaries of being, she could do it by designing a space that contained no distinct boundaries between self and world. This was very much against the tenor of virtual reality, which normally featured sharp-edged objects floating in a black void, looking like an amusement park of the mind's eye. This is what Davies wanted to attack with a direct assault on two fronts: by changing what the eye would see, and by changing how the participant would move through the world.

Davies began to craft a virtual environment of incredible translucency and ambiguity. The artwork would have visible forms, but each would be semi-transparent; you could look through any thing and see what lay beyond it. In this work, everything would always be visible everywhere. She created a world of natural-looking forms centered around a great old tree barren of leaves. The tree was surrounded by a forest grove, a pond—with an abyss reminiscent of Davies's scuba experiences—and underneath it all, a subterranean world of rocks and roots. Then Davies began to focus on the other major element of her artwork: navigation. How best should the body move through this space without boundaries? Davies loathed the computer joy stick. It felt too much like controlling a machine. Why couldn't people float through the work, just as she did on her dives? In the underwater world, position is controlled by buoyancy. The human body floats in water, but weights attached to the diver tip the balance, and the body glides downward in a gentle descent. This is so carefully managed that by changing the amount of air in the lungs, a diver can rise or fall. Fill the lungs with air, and the diver rises. Exhale, and the diver falls. It seemed perfectly natural to Davies—breath and balance.

The navigation interface to her artwork managed to reproduce this effect perfectly. Surprisingly simple, it was composed of components costing just a few dollars, including some springs, a strap, and a variable resistor. The springs, when placed in a band around the chest, could change the value of the resistor, depending upon the extension of the chest. Breathe in, extend the chest, and the computer would sense it. Exhale, compress the chest, and the computer would sense that. Suddenly the computer could respond to breathing. Now Davies could re-create the freedom of movement of her underwater journeys.

Months of eighteen-hour days preceded the premiere. In the last months, a team of two audio artists joined her existing crew (Davies worked with John Harrison, a programmer, and Georges Mauro, a computer animator) to add an all-important element—the sonic environment. Davies wanted something that wasn't so much musical as it was evocative. The duo sampled a male and a female voice, then wrote programs that would interactively generate an ever-changing sonic environment that sounded both elegiac and organic.

On August 19, 1995, the work premiered at Montreal's Museum of Contemporary Art. Davies's name for the work said it all: Osmose. The French word for "flows between"—and the root of the English word osmosis—Osmose offered individuals a chance to enter another space and experience another mode of being.

The installation was entirely immersive. Visitors to Osmose would don a head-mounted display unit and the chest-measuring apparatus, then the simulation would begin. (While head-mounted displays may be dangerous in the long term, a short exposure is relatively safe.) Inside Osmose, people would find themselves apparently weightless, floating in a translucent world of natural forms. Float to the central tree, into its bare boughs, and you'd fade into a lush garden of leaves. Float into a single leaf and you'd be surrounded by green, with tiny bubbles of white "life energy flowing all around you. Exhale, let yourself drift down, and you'd find yourself looking up at the roots of the tree, surrounded by semi-transparent rocks.

The intense intimacy of Osmose—one person, alone within the world—created a challenge for Davies. Although it had always been her primary intent to provide a solitary, contemplative experience, the museum's curators wanted to be able to show the work to a wide selection of people, including those who wouldn't be voyaging through it. To answer these problems, Davies designed an installation space featuring a projection screen so that others could look into a voyage as it was happening. In addition, the voyager—or immersant, as Davies calls them —would be standing behind a translucent screen, gently and warmly illuminated. This created a "shadow box" effect; you could watch a person as they moved through Osmose, and you could gaze upon what they saw and hear what they heard. Although very intimate, Osmose was simultaneously a public experience.

In early August, as she tested the work on a few colleagues, Davies discovered another effect of her transfiguration of space; when space changes, so does your perception of time. Her test subjects would go into the work and come out forty-five minutes later (the limit of comfort for the heavy and confining headmounted display), thinking they'd only been inside the work for ten or fifteen minutes. She had planned to allow the museum to usher people through in twenty minute intervals; this enabled only about thirty people a day to experience immersion in Osmose. Davies realized that people would never leave the work on their own in such a short span of time—it might only seem like five minutes to them. Throughout the development of Osmose, Davies had considered various effective "endings" for the work, but only when Osmose was nearly complete did she envisage an ending that seemed to flow naturally from the work itself. It was necessary not only to bring people out of the work, but to do so in a way that was very gentle. After fifteen minutes in Osmose, the immersant would be gently lifted above the central tree and see it become enveloped within a translucent crystalline form. Then he or she would float away as the world faded to black emptiness.

Montreal artist Henry See was among the first to immerse himself in the completed work at its premiere. When he emerged from his journey, he was silently crying. "It's just … very beautiful," he said, then went silent again. (He later told Davies that he had found a quiet corner of the museum and wept for fifteen minutes.) This was not an unusual reaction. Davies kept a log, where participants could record their feelings after their journey through Osmose:

"I always knew, but now I have proof—I am an angel!"

"Floating. Gently falling. Breathing. Exploring. In delight, the wonders of a green universe. Merging within another creation, but no fear, instead, breathe in, inhale a world."

To immersants within Osmose, the ending seemed to be a natural, final act, a sort of near death experience, as they felt themselves drawn up and away from the fleeting beauty of the world. One excitedly wrote in the log that she was "no longer afraid of death." In the changed space of Osmose, like some modern cathedral of light, one could find reverence, wonder, and peace.

Osmose was immediately and broadly hailed as a breakthrough work, and touches on themes recurring throughout all of Davies's art: the natural world, raptures of the deep, longing and loss. In late October 1995, crowds lined up in Soho on a chilly evening for its New York premiere, just to catch a glimpse of the piece which had redefined the possibilities of virtual reality. In Montreal, London, Mexico, and New York, Osmose was always fully booked with visitors, people ready to take a journey to another space.

Although many museums around the world have been intrigued by Osmose, very few are technically equipped to handle the installation, which requires a half-million-dollar computer, a full-time guide, and a small fleet of technicians to install the work. If that's not enough, the limit on the number of visitors the work can receive is a final barrier. Museums, built in the age of art before the interactive era, can appreciate the marvel of Osmose, but they can't or won't pay the price to display it. The ten thousand immersants who have experienced Osmose represent only a tiny fraction of those who would willingly don a headmounted display and voyage into Davies's world.

But Osmose was created several years ago, on large computers that have less power than those selling today at the local toy store—a development that intrigues Davies. She has begun to wonder if Sony's PlayStation 2 might not be an ideal platform for the presentation of her future works. Sony already sells a device, known as the Glasstron, which provides a head-mounted display that connects to the PlayStation 2. (The potential side effects of this device are unknown to the author.) The breath and balance interface needed for Osmose cost just a few dollars to build, so it could certainly be provided to a mass market of consumers hungering for an experience of space that could transform being.

In a few years' time, maybe we will all have access to Davies's cathedrals of light, visiting them as we touch different sides of ourselves. Just as the medieval residents of Paris used Notre Dame, so these new artworks can help us locate the quiet spaces within each of us.

This article may include minor changes from the original publication in order to improve legibility and layout consistency within the Immersence Website. † Significant changes from the original text have been indicated in red square brackets.

Last verified: August 1st 2013.